Alas, this is not a joke, but a scary new dimension to Climate Change.
The Hole Story
Earlier this year what appeared to be sink hole opened up in Yamal, in the Siberian tundra. Shortly afterwards two more appeared. Sink holes are a well known phenomena when the rock beneath our feet gets dissolved and suddenly a giant hole appears which can swallow cars, houses or in Manchester's case a road.
The holes in Siberia were bigger than most sinkholes - the first one found was 260 feet across - but there were other differences too. When scientists had a good look they found, not material slipping into the earth, but coming out of it.
Something from deep within had been released, violently.
Waking the Giant
form of methane hydrates. As Climate Change warmed the Arctic, the permafrost melted and the gas was released.
This was a problem. Methane doesn't remain in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, but whilst it is there it is a far more potent Greenhouse gas. 32 molecules of carbon dioxide are generally considered to have the same effect as one of CH4, so more of the stuff in the air is a very bad idea.
The question was, how much more was down there? Until this year everything I read said that most methane more than 200m below the surface and it would take a thousand year of warming to release it.
But that was before the Siberian holes appeared.
The Climate Bomb
Paleo-climatologists, who study the deep history of the earth's climate, had looked to methane hydrates as the cause of two of the world's great extinction events: the Permian-Triassic 252 million years ago and the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) 56 million years ago. They speculated that a release of methane could cause runaway global warming in the timescale of a human lifetime.
The Permian-Triassic event cleared the world of giant insects and paved the way for the dinosaurs, whilst the PETM event led to the spread of mammals around the world and the rise of the Primates. Could a similar event mark the end of the planet's dominant Primate?
Into The Abyss
A couple of weeks ago a team of Russian scientists finally ventured into the first crater. With winter
approaching the ice walls had refrozen, making it safe to explore. Still, I expect nobody smoked.
They are not going to release their results until the work is completed, but at the bottom they found a frozen lake of gas and water, more than ten metres deep, just as they expected.
But the real question remains to be answered: how many more?
So reason to be worried, but possibly not a reason to focus too much on Siberia. Methane Hydrates remain one of the 'known unknowns' of Climate Change, but there is enough we do know to press for action now, rather than waiting for more data.
As the Senior Research Fellow at Manchester University, and fellow Leicester University Physics Graduate, Dr Grant Allen told me earlier in the year:
My current personal take on the science here is that the phrase “ticking Arctic time bomb” is over-used and alarmist. There is a lot of science still to be done ... Empirical fluxes of CH4 from hydrate are simply not known with any useful uncertainty. But of much greater significance (in my opinion) are the changing source strengths in Arctic (and tropical) wetland methane emissions as a result of warming, as well as growing anthropogenic emissions.In other words before worrying about the boost to Climate Change nature might provide, lets deal with our own Greenhouse gas emissions, which are running at rate that will fry the planet without any help from natural feedbacks.
However if you want a reason or three why we should not be smug about climate change, why we should act as quickly as we can and why we should not be confident that two degrees of warming is either a safe or stable level, then you just have to look at the big holes in the formerly frozen north.